Eccentricities of a Playwright

       Tennessee WilliamsThe Eccentricities of a Nightingale would have made Aristotle, Ibsen, and Scribe proud to allow the 20th-century playwright to join their ranks. Eccentricities settles neatly into the role of a tragedy, is written in the style of the naturalists, and is structured in the form of the well-made play. However, it is not, in fact, a tragedy, at least not in the traditional sense, nor is it realistic, much less naturalistic. But Williams’ play certainly contains tragic elements and themes, including a tragic protagonist, a linear structure, and the Greek concepts of hamartia, peripeteia, and anagnorisis, as well as the naturalist views on the effect of heredity and environment on a character. Perhaps most importantly, Eccentricities presents the audience (or scholar) with a challenge – to discover the mythic pattern embedded within the play, and compare it to Williams’ other works, such as The Glass Menagerie, A Streetcar Named Desire, and The Rose Tattoo.

       To completely analyze Eccentricities in terms of all of these concepts would require many more pages than I am permitted here, so I will briefly summarize the first three ideas and then move on to discuss the motion of the myth within the play. (I am assuming the reader has some knowledge of the play before delving into this chapter, and will therefore dispense with a synopsis.) To begin with, let us examine the Aristotelian nature of the work. Clearly, Alma is the protagonist, as the action of the play centers on her. She can be regarded as a tragic figure because she makes a tragic mistake, or hamartia; she experiences a reversal, peripeteia, and she arrives at a recognition, anagnorisis. To determine this, one must keep a somewhat open mind and consider the tragic structure in terms of Williams’ characteristic mythic pattern, which will shortly be related to Eccentricities. For now, suffice it to simply state that Alma’s “mistake” was that she had the audacity to try to live her life in her own way, in a society that could not tolerate her differences; the reversal occurred when she asked John to sleep with her, and he told her that he didn’t love her, but was willing to have sex anyway; and her recognition came in the form of a new self-awareness – awareness that her inability to conform to societal standards left her with no choice but to exile herself – a self-imposed ostracism to prostitution. This may seem a bit difficult to swallow, but in fact, it actually meshes rather well with Williams’ mythic pattern, as will be demonstrated shortly.

       As for the style of the play, it can be seen as corresponding to naturalism and more specifically, determinism. The structure relates to the belief that despite the human conscience or will, human beings are essentially weak, and our behavior is ultimately controlled by forces of our heredity or environment. This idea is the basis of Ibsen’s Ghosts, in which Mrs. Alving’s fate is determined by her environment (the constraints of Norwegian society do not permit her to leave her husband), and the fate of her son Oswald is determined by heredity (he inherited syphilis from his father, which ultimately causes his decline into madness and death). These two characters are products of determinist thought, and no amount of conscience or free will, no attempts to change their behavior or situations will produce any result. They are fated, or determined, to suffer their respective endings.

       Alma is very much an embodiment of this belief, as clear reference is made to her aunt, for whom she was named, and the fact of the aunt’s dying while trying to save her husband from a fire which he deliberately set. Alma’s mother is insane, although this is a fact that is tiptoed around by Alma, Rev. Winemiller, the Buchanans, and the rest of Glorious Hill’s population. Mrs. Winemiller is stuck in the past, forever reliving the events leading up to her sister’s death in the Musee Mecanique. This derangement is a foreshadowing of Alma’s own eventual descent at the end of the play. Williams is clearly setting up the notion that Alma can not escape her own heredity, that she, too, is destined for a fall in much the same way that her aunt and mother had fallen before her.

       Williams does a one-two punch with the determinist theme, using not only heredity but environment to set up his protagonist for her “tragic” ending. The fact that Alma is considered “eccentric,” a kinder label than “misfit,” or “outcast,” is pounded into the play from its beginning. The town considers her strange, her father tries to get her to “fit in,” Mrs. Buchanan warns her son away from Alma because she doesn’t want him becoming interested . . . all of these things let us know in no uncertain terms that Alma does not belong to the “normal” part of society. Yet at the same time, Williams is sympathetic to this misplaced character, and the audience will almost certainly sympathize with her as well. But the audience can only watch the story unfold; a viewer can not leap onstage and rail at the social injustice being done to our fair heroine; a reader can not defend the harmless eccentricities of a young woman trying to find her place in the world. Whether Alma’s mannerisms are a product of heredity – which would most likely make her what we would today call “emotionally or socially challenged,” perhaps even “mentally ill” – or of her environment – growing up a minister’s daughter, giving all of her free time to the church and community while struggling to cope with the difficulties of adolescence in the first quarter of the 20th century – it is obvious that she simply does not belong to the society in which she lives. And because of the combined challenges of her background and environment, she is ultimately controlled by forces over which she has no power, no matter what she does.

       Finally, Eccentricities settles comfortably into the role of a well-made play, according to Scribe, who essentially stated that the form of such a play is as follows: Act I ends with a conflict or question (?); Act II ends with a crisis or climax (!); and Act III ends with a resolution or denouement (.). Conveniently, Williams’ play does indeed have three acts. The first ends with the matter of Alma’s feelings for John, leaving the audience to wonder if a romantic connection will be established (?); the second, with the problem of Mrs. Buchanan’s interference, and the obvious fact that John and Alma are not suited for each other, for a number of reasons (!); and the last, with its unsettling epilogue, is like a quiet resignation of Alma to her inevitable fate, which she has imposed on herself because of society’s imposition on her (.).

       Now, keeping all of these ideas in mind, let us at last turn to the question of Williams’ mythic structure. Whereas his pattern is clearly laid out in works such as The Glass Menagerie and The Rose Tattoo, it is a bit more difficult to discern the characteristic edenic vs. demonic myth and structure with Eccentricities. In light of viewing the play as a tragedy, and as deterministic in nature, one could argue quite convincingly that the play begins in the edenic myth, where Alma is perfectly content to live her life as eccentrically as she pleases; that the edenic myth shatters (as do all of Williams’ edenic myths) in the hotel scene, when the absence of a fire in the fireplace acts as a metaphor for the absence of sexual desire or fulfillment between John and Alma; and that the myth becomes demonic as Alma ends up prostituting herself, physically and/or spiritually, becoming entrapped in the world she has created in an attempt to fit into society. This all makes perfectly good sense, but it’s a bit too obvious and convenient – and it completely defines the play as a tragedy, when in fact, it is not tragic at all.

       That statement may seem like a contradiction to everything previously stated concerning the tragic structure and deterministic nature of the play. It is. I believe that although Eccentricities appears to fit into Williams’ characteristic edenic to demonic mythical pattern, it is actually the exact opposite. The play is not a tragedy at all, but a comedy. Perhaps not a side-splitting, Neil Simon-esque comedy, but a comedy in the sense that it is not, in fact, a tragedy. In actuality, the play begins in a demonic state, and winds up in an edenic one. Alma starts out trapped and repressed by society, unable to fit in or be considered normal, because of her eccentric or peculiar nature. She falls in love with John and tries to make him love her as well, in the hope that this will bring her the normalcy she so desperately seeks. She wants to fit in, she doesn’t want to be laughed at, but she doesn’t want to give up her peculiarities either. In the discussion with her father in the first act, she adamantly refuses to try to fit in by changing her nature or mannerisms. She has such integrity and honesty, that one can not help but admire her. What others view as flaws, she takes pride in; where others see freakishness, she sees the things that make her the unique, beautiful creature she is.

       The fact of the matter is that society has always been apprehensive about, or sometimes in awe of that which it does not fully comprehend. Any deviation from the norm is labeled, from “abnormal” or “wrong” to “gifted” or “genius.” In every age, there are individuals who stand out from the rest, who leave a permanent and prominent mark on history. Those whom society sees as freaks in one age are often considered ahead of their time in hindsight; those whom society brands mentally ill one century are called brilliant the next. The past teems with examples, from Columbus, who was ridiculed for believing the world was round, to Einstein, who was thought to be retarded as a young boy. Alma is not a great explorer or scientist or innovator; she is simply a girl who is different from everyone else. Those who surrounded her misunderstood and consequently mislabeled her; but she was beautiful, warm, special. She began in an intolerable reality, a diminished reality, and eventually created a mythical reality for herself. It was not an ideal myth, because she was still branded by others, but she at least reached an acceptable compromise; she removed herself from society far enough to achieve some level of complacency in her own life.

       Unlike Laura in The Glass Menagerie, whose edenic myth is shattered with the breaking of her glass unicorn’s horn, throwing her into a demonic reality which traps her -- an oppressive, restrictive prison from which she can not escape -- Alma breaks free from her own surroundings and creates new ones. Instead of the descent into madness experienced by Blanche in A Streetcar Named Desire after her own edenic myth collapses, Alma chooses the attitude and lifestyle she takes at the end of Eccentricities. Again, it is not an “ideal” choice, but she at least has the freedom and control to make that choice. Because of this vital difference, she triumphs where others of Williams’ heroines fail; she ends up singing where others would have wept. Williams buries this structure under several clever disguises, but it does exist. The linear motion, from a demonic world that entrapped and repressed her, to an edenic myth (albeit one of compromise) which she embraces for her own reasons, provides a solid foundation upon which the play rests, and allows for the mythical structure to experience the shattering and transition necessary to forward the throughline. Alma finally accepts her fate, but knows that even if she can not control destiny, she can at least control the reality she creates to suit the world around her.

This essay was inspired by Judith Thompson's Memory, Myth, and Symbol.

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